A cheap hit.
When it was announced that ESPN NFL 2K5 was going to be released for the bargain bin price of twenty bucks, we came to two conclusions: either this was a concerted attempt to wrest control of the football genre from the iron grip of EA's Madden series, or the game sucked so bad, they couldn't sleep at night charging people full price.
Fortunately for Sega and Visual Concepts, their latest effort isn't a rip-off whatsoever, offering a very solid football experience for a very terrific price. However, it also isn't the greatest football game we've ever seen thanks to a dysfunctional online component, occasionally silly presentation and a mediocre passing game.
You gotta give credit where it's due, though, and NFL 2K5 is loaded with football goodness that hasn't been seen in any other football game. Although First Person Football is still around (gag), the most interesting additions this year are the VIP system and the Weekly Prep system.
The VIP system is a profile manager that actually records your play mannerisms and stores them so that other people can play against your VIP ghost. While this system gets most of the play-calling strategies down, I never saw the VIP system bring a safety to the weak-side line of scrimmage and blitz on a play when the safety was supposed to be playing some deep zone, which happens to be something I do a lot, as foolish as it is.
The system is also limited in its usefulness to the number of gamers who are routinely at your house. If you live in a frat, you'll be in heaven as you'll have a ton of VIPs to learn, whereas if it's just you, your wife and your cat, you probably won't ever get much use out of the VIP thing. While you can play against VIPs online, the system isn't so good that you'll want to play VIP ghosts when you can compete against real players.
The other new feature is the Weekly Preparation option in the Franchise Mode. This allows you to create a custom training schedule for your team the week before a game, and is best used in concert with scouting reports and coaching reports, all of which are given in detail pertinent to Weekly Prep. The scouting report will show you how your team's squads match up against your opponent's while providing analyses of key individual match ups. So if you're playing as the Cowboys against the Titans and the scouting report says you're going to have trouble stopping the pass rush, you can customize your training regimen to boost your pass protection and drill the key players to get them ready for Sunday's big game.
However, putting together a good training regimen isn't easy, intuitive, or explained in any helpful way in the instruction manual. You have forty total hours to spend each day to pack with rehab, film, scrimmages, drills, weights, 7 on 7, and time off, but no guidance on how to divvy it up other than your scouting report. If you put together a bad training regimen, it can actually hurt your team at every single position.
Despite this ambiguity, Weekly Prep is a hardcore feature that requires a lot of patience and micromanagement yet provides a unique glance into what goes into running a football team. It allows a level of realistic customization and control never seen before in a football game, making it a terrific addition for purists.
That extends to the Franchise mode, which is nice and beefy with tons of contract options, stats, and reports to fuss over. Unlike the Weekly Prep, many aspects of the Franchise Mode come with descriptive captions and everything is included within a highly intuitive, easy navigable menu system. Fans of Franchise will be more than pleased.
The rest of the play modes - Exhibition, First-Person Football, ESPN 25th Anniversary, Practice, Situation, Tournament, and Online - were either in last year's game or are identical to play modes in other games. ESPN 25th Anniversary Edition mode, for example, is just like College Classics mode in the NCAA Football series where you attempt to relive great moments in football.
The Crib has also returned and contains more unlockable goodness than ever, as well as a ton of merchandise to buy with points earned by playing the game and achieving impressive stats. New this time around is the appearance of MTV-ish celebrities like Steve-O and Carmen Electra, who will challenge you with their VIPs. Looks like ESPN has discovered the one thing most males won't want to do with Carmen Electra" or Steve-O for that matter.
Unfortunately, both the PS2 and Xbox versions of 2K5 fumble a bit in their online play. The game comes complete with a robust league component, which works well with the VIP system by letting you theoretically practice against an upcoming player by downloading his VIP. But the whole thing is hampered at the moment due to some fairly serious connection problems regarding updating rosters and trying to connect to other gamers. Though not necessarily a widespread bug, it certainly affected us here at GR and made it just about impossible to play online. The ESPN folks have acknowledged this issue and are working on it, but overall the bugs take away from the online value.
Of much greater value, obviously, is 2K5's solid gameplay. Running the ball has never been done better than in the 2K series thanks to awesome animations and a great control scheme. Not only can you charge up your spins, jukes and leaps by holding the correct button, you can also use the right stick to stutter-step, stop short, and juke. You can give your players a turbo boost, but it's only really usable in footraces. To make up for this, your backs are quite fast, allowing you to concentrate more on your moves and less on jamming the turbo button. It's simply a tremendous running game.
Things are a bit sloppier in the passing game. 2K5 uses a standard pressure sensitive system (hold for a bullet pass, tap for a lob) which works in conjunction with the optional Maximum Passing so that you can lead or underthrow your intended receiver. However, letting loose and throwing a rocket always seems to wind up in dropped balls. When your receiver is twenty yards downfield and about to enter a gap in a zone, you do what anyone with the last name Marino would do - fire the damn ball as hard as you can. But this annoyingly means your accuracy goes to hell and your receiver's hands practically turn into feet. Although I can understand the need for tactile discipline, this game makes my inner button-masher weep with frustration.
The actual play-books themselves feel a little thin and there's usually only one interesting receiver route per formation. Furthermore, there's an abundance of plays that always or never work; quick outs, for example, seem near impossible to pull off, whereas slants work almost every time.
NFL 2K5's presentation can be summed up in one word: hype. The game is bursting with ESPN attitude, but in an over-the-top, silly sort of way. If you ever suspected that ESPN was more about promotion than objective coverage, ESPN NFL 2K5 will validate all your fears. Every single player in the game acts like Terrell Owens after making a big play, waving their arms around, pounding their chests, just all the stuff real football fans hate to see.
For that matter, the game is littered with graphical features that emphasize the ESPN branding, such as the poorly implemented Half-Time show. Starring Chris Berman and Boomer, this is essentially a visual and narrative recap of your game's highlights. However, the commentary quickly becomes shallow and colorless, the in-game videos lack good timing, and the screenshots regularly feature a player walking out of bounds after making a big play. How riveting. Like First-Person football, this is an example of Visual Concepts biting off more than they could chew and including the partially digested result in the game anyway.
Fortunately, the in-game graphics are beautiful. 2K5 is full of bright, saturated colors, great textures and superb environments. The animations are simply awesome, from the actual in-game movements to the sweet incidental touches as players argue with calls or just stand around at the end of a play. Although there's nothing subtle about 2K5's appearance and its presentation is decidedly arcadey, the rock solid framerate and overall attention to detail makes 2K5 one of the prettiest sports games you'll play this year.
2K5's sounds are equally overstated. While the music is excellent, the player grunts and groans are a bit much; they seriously sound like they're giving birth every time they deliver or take a hit, and the result is far from what I'd call dignified. You expect a hearty roar when a linebacker sacks a QB, but you don't usually hear the quarterback go "Hwarrrrrggghhh!! Gwaaaaarrrrrff!" every time he gets hit.
While ESPN NFL 2K5 doesn't necessarily make a compelling case for gridiron fans to forgo their annual routine of buying the next Madden game, it does a nice job offering a much cheaper alternative without sacrificing too much quality. It's just a shame that the online play is broken, though I suppose you get what you pay for after all.